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What the History of Slavery Can Teach Us About Slavery Today

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There were three compelling news stories recently about modern day slavery -- in the United States. Ariel Castro, who enslaved three young women, and a child whom he fathered with one of his captives, appeared in court in Cleveland to hear his sentence. Meshael Aayban, a Saudi Arabian princess, pled not guilty to human trafficking in an Orange County, CA courtroom, accused of enslaving one Kenyan woman and possibly four Filipinas. Further up the California coast, Ryan Balletto and Patrick Pearmain were transferred to a federal detention center to await an appearance in a Bay Area federal court on suspicion that they kidnapped, and enslaved, a fifteen-year old runaway girl. Seven weeks ago, investigators charged two women and two men with enslaving at least 15 women in a brothel in San Francisco. On the East Coast, in Virginia and New York, federal authorities accused 7-Eleven franchise owners of enslaving undocumented workers.

Slavery is alive and well in our country, almost one hundred fifty years after its legal end. In 1860, on the brink of the Civil War, the United States had the largest slave society in the Americas, with almost four million held in bondage. While there is no certain way to enumerate the number of slaves in the nation today, many experts believe there are hundreds of thousands, and that these numbers are growing. What can these new examples of enslavement teach us about bondage in the past? And what does our knowledge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slavery tell us about the institution and its victims today?

Certainly there are some significant differences between modern U.S. slavery and bondage before the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865. The most important change is due to that particular constitutional amendment, which stipulates: “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” shall exist in any of the nation, “except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Legally and, for most, morally, holding property in slaves is no longer regarded as an individual right in this nation. Contemporary slaveholders have to be particularly careful to hide or disguise their slave enterprises. They cannot openly exploit or flaunt the benefits of slave labor, as those in the past. Secondly, modern-day slavery draws on persons of all races and ethnic backgrounds; not just people who are ancestrally African or American Indian. The enslaved in recent news stories have been European American, Latino/a, African, and Asian. Relatedly, slave masters today rarely are elite citizens of our society -- presidents, governors, senators -- as some were in the past. Castro was a school bus driver; Balletto and Pearmain were small-time marijuana growers; and Aayban is neither citizen nor permanent resident. Slavery, nonetheless, produces an estimated revenue of $95 billion annually across the globe. The institution is lucrative today, as it was in the past. There are other startling similarities that also connect the past slave experience to that of the present.

The brutal physical, psychological and sexual abuse that Ariel Castro inflicted on Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina DeJesus was typical of what black enslaved women endured over the generations. Michelle Knight’s description of her life of horrors and how she was able to survive it -- through bonding with another slave woman -- suggests the strength and importance of communal bonds as survival and resistance strategies of slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Likewise, these women’s belief that they would not remain in slavery, as well as the Kenyan maid’s mad dash for freedom on an Orange County bus, suitcase in tow, underscore the resilience and resistance of past bondsmen and women. They are our contemporary Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Lavinia Bell. Amanda Berry’s determination to shield her daughter from the violence and shame of her conception, and the brutal deaths of her siblings and stepsiblings at the hands of her “father/master,” speaks to the code of silence that many women, and men, evoked in order to shield the devastating experiences of their lives from public view and to protect their children. The “impact statements” that the families of Knight, Berry and DeJesus voiced, echo the sense of loss and devastation that colonial and antebellum slave families experienced when subject to separation and sale; as well as the immense joy they felt when they received word of their kin’s survival or actual return.

Modern-day slaveholders also offer insight that tugs at debates regarding the past institution. Ariel Castro’s courtroom lament that he was not a “monster,” but rather a “good worker” and “father” who took his daughter to church on Sundays, sheds a harsh light on lingering myths of Southern patriarchy and paternalism. His justification of his abuse -- that he was only physically violent when provoked and that his sexual acts with his captives were consensual, even requested -- echoes apologists theories that the antebellum institution was a “positive good” and that concubinage implied “loving” relationships. The notion that the Kenyan and Filipina workers of Aayban flew first class and attended spas as an example of how well they were treated is reminiscent of the tauted material condition of some past slaves who paid dearly as a result -- the domestics, for example, who had better clothing and food than average field slaves, but who spent much of their lives separated from their kin and friends and were much more likely to be physically brutalized by mistresses with whom they worked or sexually assaulted by masters who had close physical proximity.

Perhaps the most important lesson we have learned from the experiences of slavery in the past that we should reflect upon when thinking of slavery today is that the stain of this institution does not only affect those who are enslaved; it seeps deeply into all aspects of our society. It is a stain that is profound and enduring, leading to generations of discrimination and disparity. Take it from one who knew slavery, and slaves, too well -- Thomas Jefferson:

“There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.”

Slavery fuels a mythology of privilege that provides a justification for those who have at the expense of those who are the have nots. Slavery exists today, as is has across time and place, because we have been socialized to expect some people to live on the margins of our society. Unfortunately, those margins consistently become manacles that tie us to past horrors and link future generations to discrimination and inequality.